In Review

Frostquake by Juliet Nicolson

The ‘Big Freeze’ of 1962-3, when much of the country came to a standstill, is remembered

Frostquake by Juliet Nicolson

Juliet Nicolson’s new book, an “engagingly written mixture of social history and memoir”, is an account of the “Big Freeze” of 1962-3, said Trevor Phillips in The Sunday Times. In what remains the coldest winter since 1895, Britain was buffeted for ten straight weeks by brutal Siberian winds, which “froze the sea for a mile off Herne Bay” and caused 20ft of snow to pile up on Exmoor. Much of the country came to a standstill, and millions were forced to go without electricity and running water thanks to a combination of power cuts and frozen pipes.

Nicolson, nine at the time, sat out the cold snap at Sissinghurst Castle, her family’s grand home in Kent. Although she was insulated from the worst material hardships, the atmosphere felt chilly for other reasons: her grandmother, Vita Sackville-West, had died the previous June, leaving her grandfather, Harold Nicolson, distraught with grief; and her parents’ marriage was starting to unravel. 

Nicolson provides an array of grim details, said Richard Morrison in The Times. “On Dartmoor, no fewer than 2,000 ponies perished under snow drift.” In Essex, a “heroically determined” milkman was found frozen to death at the wheel of his float. Yet she also advances a “striking thesis”, which is that Britain emerged from the “frostquake” a more liberal and enlightened society.

She charts cultural shifts, such as the growing unacceptability of casual racism, and suggests that the savage winter may have kickstarted the Swinging Sixties. “I don’t quite buy Nicolson’s notion that a single winter, however harsh, changed everything”: wouldn’t the cultural shifts have happened anyway? All the same, Frostquake offers an “entertaining panorama” of life in the early 1960s – and seems an especially suitable book to read in “our own winter of mass distress”.

Chatto & Windus 368pp £18.99; The Week bookshop £14.99

Frostquake by Juliet Nicolson
The Week bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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